C’mon, National Review

It’s natural and normal that supporters of the majority party in the Senate will move over time to oppose filibusters and other minority protections, while supporters of the minority party will come to embrace those procedural checks.

That opens everyone up to charges of hypocrisy, but I’m not concerned about that; I like that it gives everyone a chance to argue both sides of the issue, since both sides have a good deal of merit — there’s quite a bit to the notion of using a simple majority vote as a decision rule, but there’s also quite a bit to the limits of majoritarianism.

Which is why it’s disappointing to see National Review’s new attack on filibuster reform fall so short. They basically follow the line that Mitch McConnell set down in his several floor statements last week: it’s all the Democrats’ fault because they’ve restricted amendments in some cases, and besides it’s a violation of Senate rules, or at least norms, to have majority-imposed rules reform.

To NR’s credit, they acknowledge that they supported the Bush-era effort to end supermajority requirements for confirming judges. But we don’t get any principled defense of minority rights. The best they can do is make the extremely dubious case that without a filibuster on the motion to proceed that the minority would have no way of forcing its amendments to be heard. In fact, however, if a large minority wants to offer amendments and can sustain a filibuster on final passage in order to get them, then it can still do so; if not, then the majority can shut them down now anyway.

Beyond that, all NR has is a few “it’s good for our side” examples — basically, they say that the Democrats have already passed a lot of horrible bills, and will only pass more if filibuster reform passes. I mean, it’s not even accurate; the examples they cite, card check and cap-and-trade, aren’t at all dependent on Senate procedure these days.

This won’t do! There really are good reasons for opposing a majority-party-rules Senate — reasons that might appeal to everyone, not just partisan Republicans interested in pressing their short-term advantage. Supporters of the Republican minority should be making them. A conservative publication, of all things, should find it easy at least to make generic anti-reform arguments! They could even lean on that very nice post about uncertainty that Sarah Binder wrote recently. Indeed, there’s plenty of academic skepticism of reform that NR and other conservatives could use, even though most Senate scholars do support limited reform.

C’mon, National Review and other conservatives! Let’s have some more thoughtful opposition to Senate reform. Now, granted, a truly sophisticated defense of the filibuster might have to concede that the current, post-2009 usage is difficult to justify, but even a strictly partisan argument doesn’t have to be this hackish. With a likely Senate showdown just weeks away, it’s time for some much better GOP filibuster talking points.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.